Letter from Rome

Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

Even with the extra leap-year day this year, the month of February went by very quickly; it was also a very eventful one for us in Rome.  Some of us lost a bit of sleep, and a friendly wager or two, watching the New York Giants defeat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl.  Here in Europe, we don’t get to see all the new TV commercials that are rolled out for the most watched program of the year in the United States, so only those who cared about the results (and Madonna’s halftime show) watched the broadcast.  Even though my preferred team lost, I’d much rather spend 4 hours watching the American version of football in the middle of the night than the Italian/European 2-hour prime-time “drama” of metrosexuals flopping in front of clueless referees in the hopes of obtaining of an all-important penalty kick. 

Yes, I realize that I am playing into the worst stereotypes of the ugly American, incapable of appreciating the world’s “beautiful game,” but I dare say that my prejudices were formed long ago and have some basis in objective truth.  I lived in Washington, DC when the 1994 World Cup was played in the United States.  While the hysteria of the Latin American and European fans was entertaining to witness for a while, the games tended to be dull affairs, usually decided by a referee’s bad call or some kind of mistake (in one case, deadly) by a defensemen.  A David Brooks Walls Street Journal op-ed from that time compared soccer to the American adolescent pseudo-mating ritual known as the high-school prom: a lot of strutting, posing, and rolling around, but in the end, no one scores.  Which is not to say that American football is perfect: another favorite pundit of mine, George Will, says it combines the worst aspects of contemporary American life: a high-caloric feast of violence punctuated by committee meetings.

But the worst part of soccer is the hyper-egalitarian façade – a sport that be played by any child anywhere - that covers up the over-sized role of the officials to decide the outcome of the game, especially at the professional level.  In fact, soccer may be a metaphor for what ails the European and much of the global economy – a constant obsession with inequality, a.k.a. the gap between the rich and the poor, and increasing calls for official interference, i.e. government regulation.  To repeat, soccer games are often decided not by the players on the field, but by the officials who issue penalty kick, remove players from the game or blow easy calls – it just happened last weekend in the Italian Serie A match between AC Milan and Juventus.  Picking winners and losers is what they end up doing, which parallels what proponents of current models of state-managed capitalism desire to do in the economic sector - see this BBC story on the automobile bailouts, filed from my hometown of Flint, Michigan.  There are numerous opportunities for rent-seeking and corruption (ahem, FIFA). And in the end, it’s always the same, powerful, well-connected teams that win.

It’s this type of “crony capitalism” that the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street and other grass-roots advocates detest, despite their different ideological starting- and end-points.   Put them all together and what you come up with is the need for some serious re-thinking of the purposes of finance, business and the market economy in society.  A couple of other February meetings in Rome echoed this need.  Former CNN and Fox News commentator Glenn Beck was in town to rally European free-market groups to  stand up for faith and freedom – watch this segment of the O’Reilly Factor for a summary of how he aims to do so.  On the more academic side, the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross hosted a concept of “shared value” as a new business paradigm.   Our old friends Lord (Brian) Griffiths of Fforestfach and Kim Tan gave their usual, spectacular presentations on what is wrong with business to a packed room of executives and students involved with CONSEL, a professional training program based in Rome.  In my opinion, “shared value” sounds a lot like Catholic social doctrine without the theological basis, i.e. God – which raises some doubts as to its viability, but be that as it may….

February also saw the conferral of 22 red hats to the newest members of the College of Cardinals.  I was able to congratulate the two Americans, Cardinal Edwin O’Brien and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, on behalf of the Acton Institute.  Both of them are former rectors of the Pontifical North American College and therefore quite well-known in Rome.  The latter was especially popular, and even called the “rock-star” of the consistory.  One hopes that in his role as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he manages to hold the attention of the crowd longer than most musical acts and perhaps in more edifying ways.

The big issue affecting Church-State relations in the U.S. these days is the Obamacare mandate on Catholic institutions to provide their employees with health insurance covering contraceptives, sterilizations and abortions.  I wrote about the issue in this month’s newsletter, so I won’t repeat what I said there.  But with all the attention on Cardinal Dolan and his role in American public life, we can hope that the other members of the College of Cardinals were able to focus on these concerns and were not overly interested in the typically Italian scandals affecting the Roman Curia recently.  The growing, insatiable desire of liberal democratic governments to provide for all the material needs of their citizens comes at a very high spiritual price, one that Church leaders must become more aware of and capable of combating at its root, which may ultimately mean saying “no” to government benefits and favors such as state funding of religious schools.  It should be needless to say that this “no” is a actually a “yes” to civil society and other mediating institutions that provide for a more robust political life than the binary individual-State model pushed by socialists and totalitarians the world over.

The other three articles in the March newsletter feature Sam Gregg in the American Spectator relating Obamacare to what Pope Benedict called the dictatorship of relativism, and in Foreign Affairs attempting to make sense of the Vatican’s calls for global financial reform, and Jordan Ballor on crony capitalism and the housing crisis.  All point to the problem of growing state control, intended to make our lives safer and more comfortable while taking away our freedom and responsibility.  These make up just a part of our increasing awareness of the problem.  If there is any chance for successful repeal and reform of the current state of affairs, each and every one of us is going to have to join the battle, intellectually, politically and spiritually.

Kishore Jayabalan